Saturday, 15 January 2011

It's official: no more beastliness in politics

That new age of civility everyone's talking about these days, seems already to have dawned, over here in England.

The heart-rending events in Tucson show how things can degenerate when an atmosphere of hate prevails. What a relief it is to find that on this side of the Atlantic we live by higher standards.

On Thursday, a by-election was held in the Oldham East and Saddleworth constituency, which covers part of Greater Manchester and some glorious countryside up into the Pennine Hills (we don’t do mountains in England). Less enviably, Saddleworth also provided the setting for the notorious Moors Murders.

The moors at Saddleworth: a pretty setting for ugly deeds
 Labour had held the parliamentary seat at the General Election in May, but by a wafer-thin majority of 103 over the Liberal Democrats. This time they extended that majority to 3500 and the Conservatives came a distant third.

It was a bad result for the coalition government of Conservatives and Lib Dems, but all I'm going to say about my sorrow over their discomfiture is that they are most deserving people. For now, what interests me more than the outcome is the reason the election was held at all.

It seems that when Phil Woolas, then the sitting MP, clung on to the seat in May, he did so at least in part by accusing his opponent of being a supporter of Moslem extremism. Or was it being in league with the devil? It doesn’t really matter, because these days the accusations are pretty much interchangeable.

Anyway, a court convened to consider the matter, and decided that Woolas had indeed made the allegation, that it was untrue, and that it may have materially affected the outcome. The court banned him from holding elective office for three years and ordered the election to be re-run. It was the first time for 99 years that a member of parliament had been forced out in this way.

Isn’t it great how the courts have their fingers on the pulse of daily life? Consider the judges (for there were more than one, of course, for so weighty a matter). You can picture them, can't you, spluttering with indignation in the privacy of their chambers?

‘Good Lord,’ says one, ‘this young popinjay has been positively beastly about his opponent.’

‘And what he said wasn’t even true,’ replies the other, scarcely able to contain his consternation.

Perhaps they both made some kind of propitious sign to ward off evil influences.

Because they're right, aren't they? We just can’t have politicians being nasty to other politicians. And getting away with saying things which don’t meet the highest standards of respect for accuracy.

What sort of world would we be living in if they could get away with that kind of behaviour?

Next week: Silvio Berlusconi mounts a campaign to raise moral standards in public life and Vladimir Putin offers a series of lectures on the benefits of democracy.

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